Sunday, March 30, 2014

Not Zen 104: The Main Thing

A young woman sat in a bookstore with her older brother. In front of them, a lady in a trenchcoat scavenged the pages of a discarded newspaper. Dark spots covered the lady's hands. She coughed, a wet sound.

The young woman flipped the pages of her religious studies text. Next to her waited a pile of thick tomes on various faiths and philosophies. On the other side of that stack sat her brother with the arts section of a newspaper. He read the lyrics to a song. Then he set it down in his lap. He meditated. As he ended his meditation and began the next article in the paper, his sister put a hand on his knee.

"You've been at peace with yourself for years," she said. She winced as the coughing of the lady across from them started again.

Eyebrows raised, her brother waited.

"Are you enlightened or what?"

"Ah." He nodded. He closed the section he'd been reading. "I'm practicing, making progress."

"There are two different schools of enlightenment, right?"

"There are many schools and also there are approaches that aren't taught in a school." He chose one of her unopened texts and flipped the pages. He set it down. She showed him the pages of her current book.

"The writers don't agree." She pointed to a long passage and a picture next to it of a monk in a saffron robe. "But you've put this stuff into action. It's part of your life. You know what works. Is sitting meditation the main thing or is the Eightfold Path the main thing?"

"It's not right to focus too much on the sense of present awareness." He grimaced at the picture of meditation. "That's connection to the De. It's important but it's not the core."

"The important part is the Eightfold Path, then."

"Not even the whole Eightfold Path. I should be clear that I'm talking about me, my own, limited experience. At the heart of everything for me is the freedom from attachments. When you give up worldly expectations, you're at peace. You're almost there."

"Don't you need to integrate the rest of the principals?"

A heavy cough interrupted them. The woman in the trenchcoat had edged around her table and crept up on their spot near the wall. She put a hand over her mouth as if she might cough again. With the thumb and forefinger of her other hand, she pinched the corner of the newspaper section.

"How rude. Ma'am, my brother's reading that."

Without a word, again the lady tugged gently at the newspaper.

"You can have it," her brother said to the lady. He rose from his chair and gave her the section she wanted. The lady in the coat clutched it to her chest for a moment. She smiled. She glanced from brother to sister then bowed her head in gratitude.

"Even children live by the principles," her brother said. He sat back down, empty-handed. "They are always with us."

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Not Zen 103: Job Well Done

A colony of cerulean arbor birds, distantly related to bower birds, decreased in their numbers over the generations. Finally, there came at time when two great waves of sickness swept over the island where they lived.  At the close of the second wave, six of the seven remaining birds fell dead.

The arbor birds had long ago seen a diminishing of their once-great powers of flight.  But they were not yet flightless.  The remaining bird flew to other islands in the sea.  On those other islands, the remaining arbor birds had also fallen to sickness.  There were no others of his kind that he found alive, only a few bones.  For a year, the lone arbor bird searched.  Then he returned to his home island.

There, he decided to wait for lost members of his flock to return.  Wild birds had come in from outside of the island chain before.  It could happen again.

To occupy his time, he built nests.  That had always been his calling.  Now he let it consume him.  Weaving complex patterns of reeds took a great deal of energy and concentration.  Fortunately, materials were plentiful.  Feeding took hardly any of his time.  When he built an especially fine nest, he said to himself,

"Should a female return, she will admire my artistry and craftsmanship."

No female came.  In fact, no bird of size visited the island, only warblers, finches, wrens, and gulls.  Years passed.  His hopes waned.  He explored the uses of color in woven flowers, which produced vibrant blues and pinks but did not last, in living plants, which did endure, and in the red and purple dyes produced by local mollusks, which were easy to find and stayed where he put them.

His nests grew large and stately.  He produced walls that shimmered violet and indigo in the sun.  He wove images of birds into them, at first himself, cerulean in color as he observed his form in calm waters but also his friends and family as he remembered them.  He interleaved the shapes of gulls and wrens into other homes.  Eventually he included images of star fish and other beach creatures.

"Even if it's only a male who returns," he told himself, "at least that male will see the beauty of all this."

More years passed and the arbor bird grew heavier with food and age.  At the height of his powers, he had ventured to each island once a year to see if anyone had visited.  Now he didn't bother.  He spent the time on his art.

His nests were no longer homes, in truth.  He experimented with shapes and styles, laying some of them open to the sun in a way he wouldn't if he'd meant for them to shelter eggs.  That let him construct structures with flowers that bloomed in the middle, that showed different patterns of light and dark at different times of day, and that glowed phosphorescently with algae he kept alive with a rivulet of water.

He built a flowered home for a great colony of ants.  He wove patterns in the leaves of trees.

"Should I stop?" he wondered.  "No one will ever see any of this.  I can admit that now.  But the forms are beautiful.  And making them lets me feel good."

In his old age, he took to flying again each day.  He moved from place to place around the perimeter and through the heart of his home island.  When he saw a particularly good work of art, he would alight on a high branch and watch it for a while to let joy fill his heart.  Sometimes he would chuckle at his early efforts.  Sometimes he would shake his head at a creation that was particularly fine or mysterious.  He could surprise himself, on rare occasions, when he found a structure that he'd built but didn't remember.  What had he been thinking?  Why had he woven a pattern so complex?  Why had he built a structure so small, so simple, yet not a nest?

One day, he sat and studied a piece of art that changed with the sunlight.  At sunset, he said to himself,

"This is enough.  Even though this will fade, even though I will die, to have done this is enough."

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Not Zen 102: Raging Water

In a long, narrow stream there lived a community of crawfish. Amid the shale and clay, among the sands and pebbles and algae, they hid in their lairs and hunted young carp, catfish, and minnows. A crawfish, newly established in her territory, staked out her spot under a long rock. The water was clear and fast.

For a while, she waited while fish glided above her. The current had changed from the day before. It carried her prey above her and to her left. She shifted positions. Finally, a large minnow slipped into her cove from above the rock. She struck at its tail.

Whether the fish felt her coming or whether it got lucky in the current, she missed her strike. With a flick of its fins, the minnow escaped to the shallows. The crawfish howled with frustration. Not content to let the moment slip away, she emerged from her position to chase her prey.

She and the minnow dodged and struck at each another. They stirred up pebbles and silt. The cloudy waters made it difficult for the minnow to evade her but made it hard for her to strike, too. Downstream, the rest of community noticed the disturbance. Even in the steady churn of the currents, they could tell there was a problem. One of her neighbors crept upstream to find out what was going on.

"Why are you thrashing about, sister?" she called.

"I am trying to catch a fish, of course," the crawfish replied from the murk. "The waters are so muddy that I can't see a thing. I track and fight, track and fight. If I could see again, I would make an end of it."

"The cause of the muddy waters is you, sister."

"Not at all. It's the fish."

"Your imagined battle is long over." The visitor could see over the territory of her neighbor. There were no minnows, nor were there any trails in the silt to reveal where such a creature once swam. The clouds of disturbance centered on the thrashing crawfish. "Your fish fled."

"It's here somewhere," said the crawfish. "I'm sure of it."

"Anger has clouded your vision. Test yourself. Test me. Make yourself at peace for a moment, sister, and see if everything doesn't become clear again."

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Not Zen 101: The Shame of Praise

At a meeting of many religious groups, there was a procession each morning from the lodgings to the conference halls. Monks, nuns, and other clerical figures marched along a city street for a few blocks before they could meet and debate.

One of the attendees was a Zen acolyte. On his first morning walk, he stopped to give assistance to a woman who needed help putting a large, black dog back onto its leash. A group of bishops, priests, nuns, and monks watched while the student hooked the dog to its chain. The lowly acolyte was upbraided by his Zen master for slowing the progress of the group.

“Can't you see that you're delaying important people?” yelled the Zen master.

“Being who they are, they will wait for an act of kindness,” replied the unrepentant student. He seemed to pay his master's criticism no mind. The representatives of other religions nodded in agreement with him. They often disagreed with the Zen master anyway.

On the following morning, the student stopped the procession to open doors for a pair of men who carried a heavy couch between them. This time, to the surprise of all, his Zen master praised his acolyte's kindness effusively even while the boy held the doors.

“They should thank you, those men there,” he told his student. But the student was so flustered that he let go and nearly hit the last man with the edge of a door. He turned away, flush with embarrassment. He tried not to listen to the gratitude of the working men or to his master.

The other religious leaders shook their heads.

“Yesterday, I thought your master was crazy,” said one as he pulled the boy aside. The group resumed its march. The acolyte and the other man lagged at the back of the procession. “Now I think he's teaching you a lesson. He's teaching all of us. Look, you're a good person, aren't you?”

“I-I'm trying to be,” answered the student uncertainly.

“Well, I think you are. You're doing right things for right reasons.”

“But my master was mad about that yesterday.”

“He knew it wouldn't stop you from helping other people. But he also knew how you would react to his praise today. It made you embarrassed. And you stopped helping because of the praise. You let go.”

“I did? Oh, yes.”

“You're a fine person when you do right things in the face of criticism. But when you are enlightened, you will do the right thing at the right time, regardless of criticism or praise. You will be affected by neither.”

“And don't forget to say thank you when praised,” said a nun who had dropped behind the main group and had overheard.

“Shh,” said the Zen master. He turned from his walking and raised a finger to his lips.

“Thank you,” said the student, not at all quieted. His master turned back, laughing, to his partners in the procession.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Not Zen 100: Wrong Questions

Two women hiked through the woods in the spring. Flowers grew on either side of their path. Some had been planted. Others had taken root from wild varieties.

Both women had studied the ways of enlightenment, one of them for most of her life. During their hike, the less experienced practitioner asked the more experienced one a question. As is traditional, her teacher unasked the question. She explained that it was not the right line of inquiry.

Her student reminded her, "There are no stupid questions."

"Do you really believe that?"

"Of course. Don't you?"

"Only in a limited sense. What about ..." The teacher turned to a bush full of thorns for her example, "... this question: 'why do roses smell purple when they grow on the surface of the sun?'"

"That's nonsense." The younger woman folded her arms. She didn't laugh. "It's not a fair question."

"So you can at least agree that some questions are nonsense. Good."

The younger woman's brow furled. "Are you saying my question is nonsense?"

"Human minds are wonderful things." The older one resumed their walk, hands clasped behind her back. They left the rose bushes behind. "Our brains let us interrogate abstract matters. So our questions can be based on models of reality that are, in fact, wrong. We take some of those questions for granted. But the fact that we ask them shows how off the track we can become."

"Like me."

"Yes. Me, too," she allowed. They passed a chrysanthemum bush. She caressed one of the flowers. "We are not just thinking wrong. We are not just taking our first step wrong. We have a problem before we've started thinking about taking our first step. We've been given a set of sensory illusions and learned assumptions that bear little relation to how things are."

They spent a moment admiring the bushes. Then they strolled further along their path past patches of lilies in bloom.

"You're saying that my questions come out of a wrong impression of the world?" The younger woman swept her arm to indicate the beauty around them.

"So wrong that it can be difficult to contemplate. It is like thinking that this white lily is white."

"But it is white. I can see it is." She press her fingertip against a petal. "Anyway, you just said so."

"To people, it may seem white. We now understand that it does not seem that way to a bee. They see things differently in lights at higher wavelengths"

"In the ultraviolet." The student nodded and moved along.

"Yes, thank you. Our senses are limited. Our minds our limited. Those are why your impressions of the world are wrong. They are impressions you share with everyone, including me.  I am trying to tell you the correct regard for those impressions."

"All I asked is who you think created the universe."

"And the depth of the wrong assumptions in the question remains astounding."